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NRC Discusses Options for a New Regulatory Framework

The following news article originally appeared in NEI’s Nuclear Energy Overview.

NRC staff last week outlined several options it is considering for creating a more integrated regulatory framework, as recommended by the agency’s post-Fukushima task force.

The options, discussed at a Nov. 8 public meeting, include clarifying the role of voluntary industry initiatives, creating a decision process for determining appropriate safety margins, and adding a new category in the regulations to address beyond-design-basis matters.

The commission has asked the staff to provide its draft recommendations in February.

After the 2011 accident in Japan, the NRC’s near-term Fukushima task force confirmed the commission’s conclusion that existing regulations are effective. “Although complex, the current regulatory approach has served the commission and public well,” the task force said in its report (SECY-11-0093). However, the task force identified areas for improvement, particularly the NRC’s approach to beyond-design-basis events.

In its Nov. 2 draft report, an NRC staff working group outlined four options for responding to the task force recommendation:

  • maintain the existing framework
  • clarify the role of voluntary industry initiatives
  • establish a decision-making process and criteria for balancing risk, defense-in-depth and safety margins
  • establish a new category for requirements related to beyond-design-basis events.

The first option would leave the regulatory framework unchanged and continue the NRC’s longstanding practice of revising regulations and adding new ones as necessary.

“The NRC’s current regulatory framework has served well and provides reasonable assurance of adequate protection,” the draft report said. “There is no substantial safety reason for changing the framework.” The staff disagreed with the Fukushima task force’s conclusion that the NRC lacks a “strong program” for dealing with beyond-design-basis events. “The current framework has proved sufficient to address new issues as they arise,” including those related to the Fukushima accident, the working group said.

While retaining the status quo is an option, the staff said, the NRC might achieve greater “synergy” through a modified approach.

The second option reflects the NRC’s desire to establish some type of regulatory “footprint” for voluntary industry initiatives. The NRC staff believes it lacks the authority to enforce or inspect voluntary programs, such as the adoption of severe accident management guidelines, hardened vents for some reactors and groundwater monitoring programs.

The NRC has been working for several years to better define the role of voluntary industry actions in the overall context of the regulatory process. While the NRC would like to incorporate such activities into its regulatory framework so it has greater control, the staff recognizes there is a potential downside.

“Licensees may be discouraged from proposing solutions to regulatory issues if the NRC will issue a legally binding requirement in spite of such voluntary proposals,” the staff said in its report. The staff also recognized that the industry can make safety improvements more quickly on its own.

The third option would establish the commission’s expectations with regard to risk-informed regulatory decision process for balancing risk, defense-in-depth and safety margins. The NRC already provides guidance for licensees to use in requesting risk-informed license amendments for individual facilities. Under this option, the staff would expand the scope through a policy statement and implementing guidance.

The fourth option provides two possible approaches—one generic and one plant-specific—for bolstering the NRC’s program for addressing beyond-design-basis events. The agency would create a new category in the regulations that would encompass existing and future rules that go beyond the design basis—such as station blackout and aircraft impact assessment. European regulators have moved to adopt this approach.

While the option offers several benefits, the staff said, it would require significant resource expenditures and may not achieve “more than a moderate increase in safety.” Depending on how it is implemented, this option could be costly and time consuming. The NRC staff’s preliminary estimate is that it would cost between $45,000 and $1 million per reactor.

The staff said some elements of the options under consideration reflect insights from a report released in April by the Risk Management Task Force chaired by Commissioner George Apostolakis. However, the staff plans to address the recommendations of that task force separately.

The NRC staff is scheduled to meet with the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards in December and January before finalizing its report for the commission in mid-February. The industry is developing its own proposal and will provide it to the commission.

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